June 2023

Dynamo hubs, USB converters, power banks, and phones

My bike has a SONdelux dynamo hub and I recommend it to anyone interested in distance riding, especially when self-sufficiency is important. I also ride with a power bank, and use my iPhone in lieu of a bike computer. A lot of cyclists dismiss using phones rather than dedicated head units, citing battery-life problems. If you use your phone exactly as you would use a head unit, battery life would be a problem, but you can use a phone differently, in a way that gives good battery life: leave the screen dark and rely on periodic spoken status announcements. For the kind of riding I do, this is fine. Both the Ride with GPS app and the Cyclemeter app can do this, possibly others. Even so, in a multi-day self-supported event, you still need to optimize your phone charging.

I have tried a few different mounting systems for my phone, and Quadlock, which makes the mount I am using currently, does offer a mount with a built-in Qi charger. I’ve tried it, it does work, but the mount is huge and charges less efficiently than the charging port. If you use one of these, you will end your ride with less charge than you started with. If you plug into the charging port, you can keep the phone at 100% charge.

You can charge the phone from the dyno via a USB rectifier (I have this, which is part of a kit with a dyno-powered headlight), or you can hook up a power bank in series and charge your phone and other electronics using pass-through charging. I’ve tried two different power banks at this point: the Nitecore and this Anker model. They both have the same capacity: 10k mAh. The Nitecore, attractively, is the smallest and lightest power bank with that capacity, but the Anker has a couple useful features. One is that it has a Qi charger on its body. This could be important if your phone’s charging port gets wet (this has happened to me on a long ride–it can take a long time for that port to dry out once wet): you can’t charge via the port when it’s wet, but with a Qi charger, you can still charge wirelessly. I also found that my bone-conduction headset draws so little power when it’s charging that the Nitecore pretends it’s not there, but the Anker recognizes it, and even has a special trickle mode. Note: I’ve got an older Nitecore. It looks like the new model also has trickle charging.

Both of these power banks do support pass-through charging, but they behave differently when receiving power from a dyno hub. If you are charging your phone via pass-through charging with the Nitecore, power is available from a very low speed–maybe 4 mph. The Anker requires a higher threshold to pass through the charge–maybe 9 mph–and on one day, I found that my speed was hovering around that threshold for a long time, so the phone was constantly entering and exiting a charging state. This is annoying if nothing else, and probably not great for the phone.

I also found that one of the iPhone cables I was carrying (I had a few) was fussy about its power source–it would not charge my phone when plugged into the USB rectifier, but it would charge from the power bank.

A smart setup might be to get two 5k mAh chargers (perhaps this), with one strictly receiving a charge from the dyno and the other discharging to power your other electronics, swapping the two as needed. This is slightly less efficient, but offers some redundancy.

Here’s a visual breakdown of the various charging schemes I discuss.

Ride report: Ontario, OR

I got off to a reasonably early start after sleeping like the dead. The weather was cloudy and cool, which was a nice change from the day before.

The first part of the day was riding along a dam reservoir on the Snake River. That was flat at least. Kind to my knees and easy for me to manage with my reduced power, although just the climb out of the river valley, starting at the Idaho border, was a challenge. This was followed immediately by a more serious climb that was just a slog. At the summit, traffic was stopped. There was a vehicle fire about a quarter of a mile down the road. I chatted with a couple of old-timers while we waited for emergency services to make the scene safe, which took the better part of an hour. No one was hurt, as far as I know.

Descended into the small town of Cambridge, ID. Rode around it a little to see what my dining options were–weirdly, the only restaurant on the map was a Chinese restaurant, but I found a coffee-and-sandwich place and stopped there to eat and assess.

Looking at my planning spreadsheet, I would be hitting one of the toughest climbs of the race, Lolo Pass, in a day or two. I didn’t think my knees could take it, and even if my knees weren’t a problem, my power output was so diminished I was worried about getting up it. I was already using my lowest gear on climbs that were hard but not that hard. I didn’t know how I’d get up Lolo Pass. Cambridge also looked like my best bailout option for a very long time, since I was pretty close to Boise.

I talked to Gwen about it for a while, but in the back of my mind, I knew it was over. One piece of advice I read for prospective racers was that you need to be really clear with yourself about why you’re doing this, because you will need that focus to sustain you through some very hard parts. I think that’s true, and I think my own reasons were nebulous. I’ll add to that: you need to really believe that what you’ll get out of it is worth what you put into it. Because you will put a lot into it. The juice needs to be worth the squeeze, and I realized right then that for me, it wasn’t. So I didn’t get what I wanted out of the race, but I did get something: knowledge of self.

Janie Hayes, who finished the TABR twice with fast times, wrote about scratching in the Tour Divide. I read that when I was preparing for TABR 2021, and was a bit mystified by it at the time, but it makes more sense to me now.

When I reentered cellular coverage in Cambridge, I also learned that a racer I had spent a fair amount of time around had since been diagnosed with Covid. I had no obvious symptoms, but it was concerning. I wondered if I had a mild case that was just bad enough to blunt my performance.

I did some checking and found a town with an Enterprise rent-a-car agency in Ontario, OR, roughly halfway to Boise, and without further ado, decided to ride there, rent a car from them, and road-trip home. Fortunately, that leg of the ride was mostly downhill–I was going fast enough to fool myself into thinking I was riding strongly, all of a sudden, and regretted my decision to scratch, but as soon as I hit even a bit of a climb, my regret went away. I incidentally saw the truck that had caught fire on the summit before Cambridge, being hauled on a flatbed. I stopped in the town of Weiser to get a snack and e-mail Nathan, the race director, word that I was scratching.

My first stop in Ontario was at a drugstore to get a home Covid test. I rented a hotel room and took the test: negative–I have to admit it would be nice to be able to blame scratching on it.

Next, arranging a car rental. Turned out not to be as simple as I thought. Enterprise seems to be the only car-rental agency with locations away from airports, but what I was quickly learning is that only the airport locations (for any rental agency) offer one-way rentals, which I needed. What I also learned is that even many of those airport locations would not offer a one-way rental, but Avis would. I booked the reservation online. I resolved to get an early start the next day, ride to Boise’s airport, and pick up a car. I had a plan. I was looking forward to taking a little road trip at this point, and made arrangements to see a couple friends along the way.

While this is going on, dot-watchers on the TABR facebook group have noticed I’m off course. From my hotel room, I checked in on the group and let them know I had scratched. Cody, a dot-watcher in Boise, offered to help me out, and we arranged for him to meet me partway between Ontario and Boise–I really didn’t relish riding my bike into the airport, which are generally not bike-friendly places.

So the next day I start riding toward his house and he texts me the location of an intercept point where we meet. He also took me to buy street clothes, let me shower, and then delivered me and my stuff to the airport. A real mensch.

At the Avis desk, I learned that I could not rent a car on a one-way rental from them without a physical credit card in hand that they could swipe. I was not carrying a credit card. I had the info for a credit card saved on my phone, and I had a debit card, but that wasn’t good enough. There was nothing I could say that would change their mind. They told me that all the other rental agencies had the same policy.

Time for a new plan. I need to fly home.

I get in touch with Cody again and we strategize. I book a flight departing that evening. He meets me at the airport, takes me and my bike to a bike shop (Bauer Haus, a real candy-store of a bike shop) that will pack and ship it. I took Cody and his daughter to lunch (meager compensation for their trouble), then they delivered me back to the airport. I had a connection in Denver and walked in my front door at 1:30 AM.

Ride report: Halfway, OR

The big push into Baker City took a lot out of me.

I was staying at the Churchill School bike hostel, and rolled out late because I did laundry there. I stopped in town for breakfast and discovered how weird my appetite has gotten. I was beyond hungry. I was at a nice restaurant having food I liked. And I still had to force myself to finish it. I don’t understand.

I planned on making the day’s ride shorter, but between the late departure and my low speed, it wound up being really short. It’s known that your peak heart rate and power go down when you’re exhausted. Two days ago, I couldn’t get my HR over 120 bpm. In the ride into Halfway, I could barely get it over 100.

Much of the day’s riding was through Hell’s Canyon, and the name is apt. It was hot and humid, and no trees, no shade. Nowhere to stop and take a break until the town of Richland, about 40 miles in, and the only shade there was the awning in front of the grocery store.

When I got to Halfway, I had an early dinner and went to bed. I slept long and hard, and I’m hoping I’ve pushed a reset button.

I will admit that I am feeling discouraged about this undertaking. Part of the reason I wanted to do this was to find out how I would be changed by the experience at the end. But I also have to admit that I romanticized the suffering. I am at the point where the suffering has lost whatever romance it may have had, and I am asking myself whether what I will get out of this will be worth what I put in. I didn’t enjoy being on the bike yesterday–it was just a slog.

My goal for today is to see if I can at least enjoy being on the bike, and forget my mileage targets.

Ride report: Baker City, OR

I am writing this post the day after the ride–technically, my ride ended after midnight, so arguably it is the same day.

I reached Mitchell–home of the Spoke’n Hostel–pretty early and had their spaghetti for breakfast, although the 30-mile climb out of Prineville meant I wasn’t too early. Mitchell is in a valley, so after that long climb, you give up all that altitude, and then climb it again to get out. By the time I left, the day has heated up.

Most of the rest of the day is a blur. The three big climbs after Mitchell were all late in the ride, well after the halfway point. By the time I finished the second of them, it was chilly enough that I needed my jacket for the descent. After the third, it was cold enough that I needed to add more warm clothes, and my sweat-soaked jersey was chilling me, so I needed to take that off. Finding a place I could even lean my bike took a while, and then I was working in complete darkness. I was exhausted enough that I knew to be concerned about dumb mistakes, and tried to be very methodical. Even so, I rode off without my bone-conduction headset on, but it was hooked around my handlebars, so no loss there.

One minute after I passed the Baker City City limit sign, the sky opened up. I was only in the rain for about 10 minutes but got soaked.

I had set the goal of reaching Baker City because there’s a bike hostel there. I knew it would be a big push.

It was too long. 195 miles with 5 major climbs. My appetite has been hit-or-miss, and my last solid food of the day wasn’t sufficient.

Ride report: Prineville, OR

Slept well and woke up at 5:30. Got rolling about 45 minutes later. Not great efficiency. Rode to Lewisburg and stopped at a greasy spoon for breakfast.

At some point while riding along the McKenzie River, I pulled over to strip off my warm clothes, and was passed by another racer, Richard. We rode together for a bit and stopped at a convenience store shortly before the turnoff for McKenzie Pass, the day’s main event. As we pulled in, another racer was pulling out and yelled his recommendation for the chicken tenders.

I rolled out a little before Richard and reached the turnoff. A couple of guys from Portland were getting their bikes ready; we chatted for a bit about whether the road was really closed due to a recent rockslide that needed to be cleaned up. We all agreed it was worth chancing it. I rode in ahead, knowing they’d pass me quickly.

The pass is at an altitude of about 5200 feet; the base is at about 1000 feet. As you ascend, you pass altitude markers every 1000 feet. At about 3500 feet, I had to take a break–I was whipped, my back hurts, and I ran across a rail I could use as a bench and prop for my bike. Before reaching 4000 feet, I came upon the Portland guys. I assumed they had already reached the top and were coming down. Nope. They were taking their time, I guess. There were a lot of cyclists on the climb–it’s a well known destination, especially right now when it is closed to motor traffic. There are gates at the east and west sides partway up that cyclists and peds can bypass.

I ran across a couple more racers, Mike and another guy whose name I didn’t catch. Mike and I rode together for a bit; I learned he’d read my blog entries about the 2021 race.

The top of the mountain is like Mount Doom–no life, just broken lava rock everywhere.

On the way down, I chatted with a rider going the other way, and later, at the eastern gate, there was another rider coming the other way. We chatted for a bit too. Something seemed familiar about him, and after he asked my name, I told him and said “and you’re Evan Deutsch, aren’t you?” He was. He’s won the TABR and has some very high placements when he didn’t. Nice guy, very down-to-earth.

I made it to the next town of Sisters, a very cute town blessed with two bike shops, which is pretty rare. Only one was open, so I went there. Blazin Saddles. My shifting has been off, and I hadn’t been able to fix it myself, so I suspected the derailleur hanger was out of alignment. It was. They dropped everything and got me fixed right up. Another racer was in there buying spares.

As long as I was making a stop in Sisters, I decided to eat. I found a food truck serving Mexican food and ordered a taco plate. Weirdly enough, I had to force myself to eat it–i just don’t have much of an appetite. This is a problem. There’s only so far I can go on stored fat.

My original goal for today has been Mitchell OR. What I realized was that I’d be arriving after nightfall, and the descent into town is scary enough in the daylight. I wound up stopping 40 miles short, in Prineville.

Ride report: Springfield, OR

A big day on the bike. We had a strong tailwind almost all day, and it’s clear many of the racers are making hay while the sun shines. The guys at the pointy end are all around 300 miles for the day, and probably not stopping.

A lot of climbing too, including a couple of very long, steep grades. I saw one racers going up the first of these on foot. Somehow, much later, I saw he had beat me to a road–but was on the wrong side of it. There was another racers I kept swapping positions with. I rode faster than him, but stopped more often.

My goal has been to average 180 miles/day, and it’s nice to start off with some extra miles in the bank.

I stopped in Tillamook for an early lunch at the Safeway, where I encountered my first dot-watcher, had a few snacks along the way, and stopped in Corvallis for dinner at a semi-fancy pasta place called Pastini. It was nice pretending to be civilized. I pushed on another 40 or so miles to Coburg, and am actually a little off course at a Motel 6 in Eugene. The place reeks of despair.

I’m going to sleep until I’m done sleeping.

Packed and ready

Take to the Sky, ready to go

Apart from a handful of small items I’ll need between now and tomorrow morning, my bike is ready for the Trans Am Bike Race.

My self, that’s another matter.